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>> this program is brought to you in part by norman and barbara tomlinson, r. kirk landon, cathy l. jones, john and linda squitero, david a. klein foundation, and the villagers. >> "dear mr. chalfin, what do you think about the name vizcaya for the florida house? tradition has it that it was the name of one of the early spanish adventurers who explored this part of the world.
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we could also use as an emblem for the house, a caravel. i doubt if we are likely to find a better name. yours sincerely, james deering." >> i think as a world traveler james deering viewed architectural history from a lens of timelessness. he knew what the princes of the renaissance had built. he related to the princes of american industry changing the world in the way the medicis changed the world of renaissance europe. >> vizcaya had to look like a italian villa that had been lived by several generations for 300 years, and the place was never meant to looked new. >> and yet it's built in the 20th century and it doesn't look corny, it's not a pastiche. it's the real thing.
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>> in 1910, industrialist james deering started making plans to build his dream palace in a primeval jungle. a wealthy bachelor of rich and refined taste, he dedicated the rest of his life to creating one of the greatest estates in america. >> one of the most fascinating aspects of vizcaya is that it was built at the end of the world. miami at the time was the end of the world, really. >> well, miami didn't even exist
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until 1896. so we are talking about 20 years after the end of the frontier. this whole part of the town south of the river was what the indians called "the hammock," which is dense subtropical forest. there were panthers still wandering around in it. and, there was a story where a man got lost in the hammock and died. it was so dense. so he picked out wilderness because he wanted the privacy it would offer him. >> james deering hailed from chicago, at a time when the city was growing out of the ashes from the greatest fire of the 19th century. chicago is where the young deering grew up and was educated, and it is where his father william deering founded the agricultural farm equipment
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business, deering harvester company. around the turn of the century j.p. morgan brokered a merger between deering harvester and mccormick harvesting machine company, which would become the fourth largest corporation in the united states. deering soon took the reins as vice president of international harvester, a firm that in america's industrial age helped revolutionize grain harvesting methods. he was now considered a captain of industry and a member of the gilded age elite, an exclusive list which boasted names such as vanderbilt, astor, and flagler. >> well, it's been called kind of american royalty. you know, we were the common man and we didn't have royalty. these people had so much wealth. they wanted to build homes that looked like castles and palaces for kings and queens, which is what many of them looked like. and so you go around the country and you see like newport has many of them. of course, palm beach does.
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>> americans feel they need to make a statement. they all travel to europe and they all see how wealthy europeans live and they realize it isn't about being rich. you need to surround yourself with a certain lifestyle and all these things that europeans did like hunting, golfing and yachting and having parties will get adopted by these class of people. >> as a result, these gilded age barons began to erect testaments to their wealth. george vanderbilt built the vanderbilt estate in the mountains of north carolina. edward stotesbury constructed whitemarsh hall and peter widener, lynnwood hall both in rural pennsylvania. railroad tycoon henry flagler created whitehall on the shores of palm beach. the late 1800s and early 1900s were responsible for the most opulent and impressive homes in american history. it was now time, james deering decided, to plan his miami estate, which would become an
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ambitious masterpiece. >> it's amazing. so you have no antiquity laws. you have no income tax. you have all this money and no heirs. this is james deering, why not build vizcaya. >> deering's friends always knew him as a deliberate man, generous, and kind. privacy was a priority. his plan to build a castle in the sun did not imitate the trends of other american aristocrats who were building their seaside mansions up the coast, in palm beach. >> well, i think he was somewhat elusive. and, he wasn't someone who's out there trying to draw attention to himself.
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he was artistic and especially his brother charles, he was very close to his brother charles. >> both his half brother charles and his father william built homes in the pioneer town of miami in the early 1900s. charles, like james, sought out the natural beauty and solitude of the sub-tropics. he too would build a large home among the hammocks known as the deering estate. >> i think it's like peter pan's boys finding never neverland and it was really wonderful and magical to build a place like this here, i mean where is better? >> even before vizcaya had taken a name or formed an image in his mind, deering knew he needed an impresario to orchestrate his dream. >> at the time deering had just purchased this land and was thinking of building a villa and
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chalfin became his advisor, art director, architect, and really he developed the idea about this place. >> paul chalfin was an associate of the great american decorator elsie de wolfe. deering and chalfin met in chicago in 1910. >> well, chalfin is a fascinating, enormously odd man. he was visually extraordinary, sophisticated, and talented, but slightly flawed personality in some ways. but for chalfin who begun as a mural painter, done interior design, was interested in architecture and gardens, he sort of latched on to deering as a client. this was a big opportunity for him. this was his main chance and he grabbed it. >> i think he was absolutely a character. i mean, first of all he was openly gay in the 1910s, which not something that people would necessarily be.
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and he would dress up like a gaucho you know. he was extremely flamboyant and bold at the same time. >> as if driven by an impenetrable mission, deering and chalfin traveled to europe and started buying paintings, sculpture, tapestries and antiques. >> i don't think they were friends in the personal sense. they were both caught up in the project. this house brings them together and they spend ten years really equally obsessed with it, and i think that is the great attraction of vizcaya. it's not a stamped out product of its time. it's really the result of these human obsessions, and these enormous passions about not just doing it, but doing it well and i think that comes through. chalfin is really what every client would want to have, someone who can advise you when
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the architect is making sense and when he or she isn't. someone to tell you when the piece is too pricey or if the garden is coming together or whether the colors work in the sunlight. really, he was the perfect person i think. >> together, client and designer traversed europe gathering up the architectural fragments for deering's tropical estate. they collected ceilings from italian palazzos, mantels from french châteaux and wrought iron gates that once graced the palazzo pisani in venice. each element spoke of history, but together they lacked uniformity. it would take the genius of burrell hoffman, a clever young architect to reassemble the puzzle pieces to form an exquisite and cohesive design. >> there's a letter or maybe a
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memoir where deering told his nieces i think, he wanted to have the fun of building it himself. he didn't want to have an architect who would essentially order him around and do what he wanted so chalfin hired a very young architect who had experience, who was very well educated and talented because he had to pull this all together. furniture, artwork and architectural elements were all shipped to new york and reassembled in warehouse rooms designed to mimic deering's future home, a home that had yet to be designed. >> that is very, very unusual because its really a notion of set design. it's like working in a museum. when you organize an exhibition, you have to place things in a space to make them look you know in their best way. >> well, i think my favorite person in the this story is chalfin. he was imagination and good taste and a real character. i just would have loved to be a
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fly on the wall on these buying trips. just imagine how fun to walk in a house and say i'll take this wall or i'll take that wallpaper or i'll take that column and ship it home. in the summer of 1913, hoffman traveled to italy in search of inspiration for james deering's italian villa by the sea. two years earlier chalfin and deering had scoured the foothills of the veneto region for the villa that would serve as the vision for vizcaya. they found inspiration in the 17th century villa rezzonico. hoffman would create a re- interpretation of the italian villa by incorporating elements and materials that were indigenous to florida. >> deering clearly loved it, loved the idea of this villa and loved the challenge of transferring something like that to a place, you know, to the tropics. there is one letter in which
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chalfin writes to one of his correspondents and talks about vizcaya and talks about "imagine a villa on an african lagoon." and that was their idea, you know, doing something that was so deeply connected with the tradition but at the same time completely exotic. >> while hoffman was concentrating on the plans for the house, the 180 seaside acres, purchased from miami's pioneer mary brickell, we being prepared for construction. it was 1914 and deering was growing increasingly impatient. he was 54 and ill with pernicious anemia which left him weak and tired. for the years to come he would need to rely on his tenacious character and passion for his beloved vizcaya in order to defeat all the obstacles the future would bring. ( sounds of gunfire )
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>> one of the main obstacles was of course the first world war. and one of deering and chalfin's major purchasing trips to europe happened in the summer of 1914 and the objects were being spped in the autumn and winter of 1915 when the war was going on. as deering was sending all of his purchases from europe by ship, the passage of his cargo during wartime proved daunting. even the shipments from new york took time because of delays. >> i think you imagine that everything is happening by water, you can't just e-mail and fax ideas back and forth, but honestly i'm not sure that kind of pause of thoughtful reflection for a letter to travel to new york to make a decision about a garden in miami wasn't ultimately a good thing for vizcaya. so yes, it required someone who was intrepid but deering he had already demonstrated that's who he was.
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>> the largest residential construction project in the state would require skilled craftsmen and artisans from around the world, but deering also made a point of hiring local labor. >> it's hard to imagine today that we were really that small. and they hired half the town, was working. and it was an economic engine extraordinaire. the people in miami loved it. >> one of the first locals hired was a man named john j. bennett. he would be the last one to leave the project ten years later. >> well, my dad came down right out of the university of florida. as a civil engineer, he went to work for biscayne engineering, and so mr. deering interviewed him and he offered him the job as resident engineer here. and dad was 21 years old. >> deering was a staunch conservationist.
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it was said that his great love of the nature surrounding the bay caused him to issue an edict "no trees would be cut." his hammock would remain intact. >> when they started putting the roads in, where dad wanted the roads to go, this one tree was there and it wasn't too big, but it was there and he knew he must not cut that tree. so, he took one or two men at night and dug it up and moved it to one side and replanted it and put leaves all around so it didn't look bothered at all and he stuck to his word. but that's j.j. we called dad, j.j. >> building in paradise often posed hellish conditions. the heat of the summers and
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creatures of the jungle proved unforgiving. >> the mosquitoes were relentless. and when you're dealing with this piece of property where vizcaya is which lowland, which means you had mangroves. that's where mosquitoes love to breed. there is this wonderful quote we liked to use that came from the spanish american war when they dropped the troops down here in the summer. and they said, "if i owned miami and hell, i would live in hell and rent out miami." >> alligators and land crabs lurked in the mangroves and of course the dreaded rattlesnakes that were so abundant the workman immortalized the feared serpent on the ceiling of vizcaya's dining room >> oh my goodness, gracious. ( laughter ) dad always told us that he killed a rattlesnake. i forgot how big it is but it was hanging outside his shop down at biscayne engineering, they have a picture of that a huge thing. but the crocodiles, alligators
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and mosquitoes terrible, and possums and coons, and you just name it, it was wild! >> a great many of the workers were from the bahamas. they knew how to deal with the insects. they knew how to cut the mangroves, but also their understanding of the land, of the breeze. ah, i would, no doubt think that they had to do with the location of things because they understood the tropics so well. >> james deering had his own ideas when it came to location and that was where his house was to sit. as deering walked the mangrove path that j.j.bennett had made, he pointed down to the water and >> we think its natural to build a house on the water but this was at the time people didn't do that. all the newport houses are far from the sea and we know that it
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was deering's decision. he really pushed for that and today its one of the most beautiful features of the house. >> after two years of planning and another 14 months of construction vizcaya was taking shape. rising out of the untamed tropics like a mirage if vizcaya was deering's vision, it was chalfin who added magic to her soul. >> deering managed to create a myth around this place so even the name vizcaya refers to this legendary explorer viscaino who came with ponce de leon and discovered florida at the end of the 16th century. >> the house would be designed around a courtyard flanked by four towers. the finished estate would become a grand original, touted as an american first not a renaissance copy.
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>> there's a mixture of styles in the house. it's not a pure baroque house. it's got renaissance features. it's got kind of italian villa features and i think chalfin who really is the impresario of all this wanted it to look like it had grown over a long period of time, but on the other hand its not what you would call a disneyfied house. >> although vizcaya looked as if it was wrapped in history, deering with his background in engineering and industry was adamant that it be equipped with all the modern innovations of the day including an elevator, a master clock, an annunciator which allowed deering to call for servants throughout the house, a state-of-the art telephone system and most importantly fire equipment which helped fire proof the house. >> he also thinks, "what am i going to do, i am from chicago." two-thirds of that city was destroyed by fire.
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no one is going to burn my palace down. he installs a sprinkler system through out the house. there are many fire hoses, fire extinguishers. there was a small fire engine right on the property that they could wheel to the site and have additional water as well as hoses. the estate would also be self sustainable with a farm village for livestock and acres of farmland where staff would cultivate flowers, vegetables and a variety of exotic fruit. i love the farm village. i think architecturally some of those buildings are the finest i've ever seen. the whimsy of the egg shaped windows in the poultry barn and in the cow jumped over the moon over the cow barn. that's imagination. that's creativity. but i remember reading, i don't know why this cracked me up so much but it did, you could
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actually buy eggs in the farm village. james deering eggs. >> chalfin spent more time on the construction site than the other principles on the project. he knew all of the workmen by name and was said to make sure everyone took a personal interest in their work. in 1915, he commissioned a houseboat for himself at deering's expense so that he could watch the project take shape from a close distance. >> there's a picture of this houseboat with sort of flower boxes and a kind of canvas top area. it had a fireplace in it. it's hard to imagine a fireplace on a boat, but it did. >> vizcaya was built as a solid fortress, entirely of concrete with steel enforced floors, which made the structure resistant to termites, decay, and hurricanes. a steam power tramway delivered concrete to the upper levels of the building while a rail spur, connected to flagler's main line was built to bring in supplies from around the united states. other building materials came
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from far and wide by ship. every detail is dutifully thought out. there are thousands of craftsmen and workers and iron work and the tiles came from cuba, the roof tiles and they bought, there were old homes in cuba and they bought the whole roof and shipped them over, because they liked the sort of old patina on these clay tiles. so it was a very, very thought out project. >> one detail that required ante formal garden. this area was to be an extension of the house. designed as a tropical garden in a baroque design, it would eventually grow into one of the most impressive estate gardens in the united states. >> deering didn't try to bring the italian garden to vizcaya which he could have easily done. he wanted to bring native plants that behaved in the same capacity the team saw the garden
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as almost a dramatic setting and every piece of the landscape had a role to play and they wanted you to experience what the drama is here in florida. >> the team now included a new and crucial player: a young landscape architect diego suarez, who deering and chalfin first met in florence at renowned art collector and dealer arthur acton's world famous garden at the villa la pietra. many elements from la pietra's gardens served as an inspiration to suarez and would be incorporated into the master plan at vizcaya. >> the garden of vizcaya reached back to renaissance garden tradition in a very powerful way. those gardens were always sat in what was called "a bosco," the sacred wood and the wood has a tradition all the way from ancient times as a place where divinities could be hiding in
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secret. so it was magical. >> as the planned gardens would emerge from the tangled wilderness, suarez along with his fellow designers continued the element of surprise by designing a mystical barge that seems to rise out of the bay like a ghost ship. >> oh my gosh, the barge is the most amazing piece for me. i mean, that is as a landscape architect i have to say this is the biggest folly i know, there is nothing like it in the world. what is it, it looks like a great roman ship out in the bay whi once had trees and a little pavilion on it and fountains and flowers and statues, a stone boat that appears to be floating in the water in front of you but it's actually a breakwater. >> the barge evolved into a work of art as chalfin employed well known artist stirling calder to sculpt the tropical figures that
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would grace the prow. voluptuous mermaids were added, which led to much discussion about whether the sea creatures were featured appropriately. >> because, apparently, the mermaids were a little too overtly sexual for deering's taste. a workman had hung a sign off of the of the breasts of one of these women and so it was getting a little too much, so he gets calder to kind of tone it down and kind of soften up and a few seaweed gets carved over a few parts i think. >> the barge became an instant sensation with the press. in 1917, the architectural review dedicated seven pages in homage to the exquisite island garden and yet no where in the text was diego suarez's name mentioned. chalfin began to take the credit and assume the reins for the entire vizcaya project. >> well, like many artists and creative people particularly people who are controlling,
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something he was not a very nice person about it, and so he definitely took advantage both of hoffman and later of suarez because they were younger architects, garden designers and he essentially used them for their technical skills but kind of pushed them out when they sort of done the things he wasn't able to do. >> after three years of the significant planning of multiple gardens and an entire 30 acre lagoon garden, suarez became discouraged and vanished from the project. his name would soon be forgotten as a significant contributor for almost 50 years. hoffman too suddenly left in 1917, called to the war overseas, a war that was continuing to plague the work at vizcaya. with men being called into battle deering would have to wait for his baroque fantasy garden. working independently chalfin, switched gears and began to
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concentrate on the interior details of the estate. >> deering had written to chalfin early in the design process that he wanted a handsome house, a comfortable home where he could entertain his friends and family. yet vizcaya was soon becoming far more elaborate and costly than he first envisioned. deering's letters started to question expense and necessity, but as was a continuing pattern, chalfin pushed on towards his goal. there are many stories about paul chalfin. but historically, most will allude to the fact, he was on hard times. this was going to be an opportunity, an opportunity with
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an almost unlimited treasury to recreate whatever fantasy he might have in art. and so he could see a great opportunity working with deering. now he wasn't going to have his way 100% of the time. at other times, he trusted chalfin his artist genius paul chalfin. "go for it. do what you can. make it the grandest and the greatest in america," and chalfin did that for him. the two men, if you look at their correspondence, they went along very well and they went along very well in the frame of relationship between patron and artist so sometimes deering would go, "this is unbelievable, you cannot make me do this, forget about it." and chalfin would do the same, but he knew exactly what he wanted to do. >> a clash of artistic ideas was not uncommon especially when it came to designating the emblem for the house.

Sino News Magazine
PBS March 13, 2011 8:30pm-9:00pm PDT


TOPIC FREQUENCY Deering 39, Europe 6, James Deering 5, Hoffman 5, Vizcaya 4, Suarez 4, Chicago 4, America 3, New York 3, Paul Chalfin 3, Cuba 2, Newport 2, United States 2, Caravel 1, Chalfin 1, Coons 1, Palazzo Pisani 1, Whitehall 1, Biscayne 1, Bosco 1
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